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Honoring the '60s Legacy

Civil rights: Play at Cal State Northridge commemorates 1968 campus protest that led to creation of minority studies departments.

November 07, 1996|SYLVIA L. OLIANDE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The student actor and most of the audience watching him hadn't been born when members of the Black Student Union at San Fernando Valley State College took over the administration building in the era of 1960s civil rights protests, leading to the establishment of minority studies departments.

But the actor, who calls himself T-Fox, used the 28th anniversary of the takeover to deliver a message to today's ethnic minority students at Cal State Northridge, as the school is now called.

"You did not get here by yourself," T-Fox told the audience.

He performed "The Times of the Furnaces," a play by New York writer-activist Earl Anthony, commemorating the events of Nov. 4, 1968, when the black students' group occupied and closed down the administration building. The sometimes-violent takeover was widely decried as an example of unchecked campus radicalism; it marked the first mass felony prosecution of black student demonstrators in the late 1960s.

T-Fox portrayed Archie Chatman, a Valley State football player who became a leader of the students' revolt, delivering a monologue on the injustices blacks felt on the then-mostly white campus.

T-Fox, 23, a senior Pan-African studies major, said he became interested in the incident after meeting many of the original participants three years ago during a celebration of the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Pan-African Studies Department.

"I was sure I had made it here by myself, based on my grades," he said Monday after his performance. "But in hearing those brothers speak and talk about what they went through, it made me want to learn what went on."

This is what went on: Chatman and about two dozen other black students seized the college president's office, holding the president and other staff members for three hours while making 12 demands--including establishment of an Afro-American studies department, an increased effort to recruit minority students and amnesty for the students' actions that day.

The protest began after students complained that administrators ignored their requests to punish an assistant football coach whom they accused of berating and kicking a black player at a game.

"All we wanted was justice," T-Fox cried out on stage as Chatman. "Was that too much to ask?"

The administration building takeover was followed two months later by a mass campus demonstration to support a black studies programs. Nearly 300 demonstrators--the vast majority of them white students--were arrested on charges of illegal assembly. That spurred secret negotiations between administrators and black student leaders, culminating with an agreement to create the Afro-American studies department.

The play held special significance to one student in attendance.

Vaya Crockett, 46, was among the so-called "San Fernando Valley State 19" who were convicted of kidnapping and false imprisonment for their roles in the unrest. He was 18 at the time.

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Crockett served six months in County Jail and was ordered to stay away from the campus for five years. It was only in the spring of 1995 that Crockett finally returned to Cal State Northridge to "finish what I began, where I began," he said after the performance.

Now a senior studying history, Crockett said he was too angry to continue his education after his jail term, but that he does not regret what happened.

"Each year I have to relive what we did because what we did was lay down our lives," he told the gathered audience. "But I see the diversity on this campus, and I ask myself, 'Would I do it again?' Yes, I'd do it again."

The performance of Anthony's play was sponsored by the campus DuBois-Hammer Institute for African American Achievement.

It is important now to look back at that day and the impact of the students' actions, said Barbara Rhodes, a Pan-African studies professor and director of the institute.

"We need to let our young people know of the struggle that resulted in the gains we have and the reality that we can't afford to lose ground, we can't become complacent," Rhodes said.

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